Laying The Groundwork
For Easy Memorization

by Jaye

          It is much easier to play a memorized piece smoothly and confidently than looking at the printed page for note-to-note, or even measure-to-measure support. It is also much easier to carry around a 5x7 note card with song titles than a huge notebook filled with music. Eyes, mind, and fingers all know what to do without having to check with the printed page every few notes. One can think in terms of entire passages, or even the entire song, and only one's attention span limits the ability to visualize the structure and dynamics of the song one plays.

          For years, I needed printed music. I only gradually achieved the ability to memorize automatically as I learned pieces. It was as I learned chord theory -- how notes build chords, and how to predict what chords come when in a song -- that I began to leave my music behind. I would like to share with you how chord theory enabled me to memorize music organically.

                    As a child, I memorized the piano kinesthetically -- by the motions. If I missed a note, I was lost until the next placement because I did not know the notes, only the hand movements. In my teens, I began memorizing note by note as well, enabling me to find my place if I made a mistake, but memorization was still difficult.

                    With folk guitar, I saw each chord as a single unit, and instead of looking for each note, I grabbed for "Am" or "B7." Because I played from lyric sheets rather than music, I began listening to the music and letting it tell me when it was time to change chords. The change often came in the middle of words, not where I expected them to. The music also began to "tell" me what chord came next. Suddenly I only needed chord charts for very complex songs.

                    When I began playing harp years later, it did not occur to me to apply the guitar skill to it until my third harp teacher introduced me to chord theory. She had written music books with only the triad chords in the bass. I asked her, "Aren't these rather simple arrangement?" She replied, "These are not the arrangements. These are for you to build your arrangements from. After mastering this skill, you will be able to build an arrangement from just a melody line."

What makes Music - Runs and Chords

          Except for music by a few avant-garde 20th century composers, the notes that combine to make it are never random -- they are laid down according to logical rules which predict each "next" note.

                    Music consists of melody, harmony, and rhythm. Few people have problems with rhythm once they have mastered a piece. I will focus here on in melody and harmony.

                    Melody is made of two things: runs and jumps. Runs are simple – remember where one starts and ends and you know the run.

          Jumps are a bit trickier, but still learnable. Practice the intervals in Figure 1 with one and then both hands until you know them well. You may think it will take "forever" to learn each by feel, but you have already been playing them, just not cataloging them by their names. Now you will store them in "memory bins" where you can retrieve them easily.

          Now try playing figure 3, which combines intervals and runs. How does it feel now that you have practiced playing the various intervals?

          In addition to this exercise, try making up combinations of runs and intervals. They don't have to sound great -- they just have to combine consecutive notes and intervals. The runs can be as long or as short as you like. Try stacking the intervals: two 3rds stacked on top of each other is a triad chord, for instance. Experiment with other intervals. How do they sound? How do they feel?

Harmony: The Spice of Music

          Practice playing these chords with one and then both hands while thinking the names of them. You are already used to the chords, but you may not have the names of them in your memory bin.

                    If you have been stacking intervals, you have been experimenting with harmony. You will have noticed that some intervals sound great together, and some not so good. The ones that sound good together are chords; the ones that do not are dissonant (painful-sounding).

                    You may have already practiced chords as part of your daily routine, but you may not have thought of them as a stepping stone to mastering memorization. Here, though, I want you to do just that. Look at the following music:

          Now invert them (Figure 5.) Become comfortable with the inversions while holding the name of each chord in your mind. Each chord is presented in root position, first, and then second inversion in Figure 5. Make practicing these inversions in all keys part of your daily routine. Remember, "arpeggio" means "like a harp." These inversions, done for at least two octaves, are the bases of arpeggios.

          Once you are comfortable with these inversions, look at the music you have been practicing.

          Where are the runs in it? Where are the chords? Where are there two-note intervals? Photocopy one of the pieces you are working on.

          Start with the bass clef. Mark arpeggiated chords in one way and runs in another. (Use different colors, or use normal brackets for one and highlighters for the other. If you are in a key other than C, don't freak out -- the key signature changes the chords into what they need to be. If you are in G, for instance, you will play D instead of Dm. and B7 instead of Bm7dim. These markings make each run and arpeggiated chord stand out as a gestalt. (pronounced ge-SHTALT).

          A gestalt is any combination of things that combines into an entity the mind comprehends at once: notes in a chord, an assembly of wood forming a harp or guitar, lines and curves making a picture. We will use this concept again.

          Once you have marked in all the chord gestalten (more than one gestalt), write in the name of each arpeggiated chord over or under it. Remember, runs are also gestalten. Sometimes it helps to mark the letter of the first note of the run. Mark the names of isolated chords that you play "flat" or "rippled." The only thing left should be individual notes your hand comes off before and after playing. You can also mark the letter of these notes. Yes, there are some instances where individual notes connect to nothing else. Disconnected notes are more common in multi-course harp fingering, but even diatonic harpers find them occasionally.

          Now go back and play through the bass clef of the piece, paying attention to your markings. Instead of several hundred notes, do you have only a few dozen chords interspersed with some runs and a very few isolated, single notes? Play through it several times, following your markings. Is it beginning to come together for you?

          Repeat the process with the treble clef.

          When you are comfortable playing each hand separately, try them together. Expect some discomfort as your mind adjusts to the new way of thinking about music. This will come together as you develope familiarity with it. Remember -- you had the same kind of discomfort when you first began learning the harp -- or writing your name. Stick with it, and will get easier than you would believe possible.

Making it Even Easier

          Music "talks" to you. It "tells" you what chord it wants next, just like a language tells you it needs an adjective, a noun, or a verb next. There are chord progressions that are so common you need to practice them and expect them, because they crop up over and over again. Sure, you will find other ones – and those unexpected ones are the spices that make the songs that have them rare and beautiful. But the songs with the predictable chord structures also feel familiar and comforting just because of that familiarity.

          Just as chords are made by gestalten of notes, music is made up of gestalten of chords. The charm of music lies in the balance of predictability and surprise in both melody and harmony. For harmony, read "chord progressions."

Recognizing Common Chord Structures

          Most traditional songs are so simple that they require only two to five chords -- and thousands of songs fall into this category. Get to where you can "hear" these songs talk to you and you have made a giant first step in memorizing music -- hearing when you need to change chords and what chord to change to.

          Play "Old MacDonald" with the right hand. Now play it with the left hand playing a C chord every other beat. At some point, the C chord becomes dissonant -- sounds wrong. Where? What chord does it demand? G? F? Dm? Am? Em? Experiment by playing along and putting each chord in when you come to that note. Write in over the note the chord that sounds right. Keep going through the song and writing in the chords.

Changing Keys.

          Changing keys confuses many new musicians. Talking about chords in a way that avoids confusion across keys requires what amounts to almost another language. We use Roman numerals to signify where chords lie on the scale, with a small letter after it to indicate anything other than a major chord (see Table 1).


I First/Tonic C D E etc.
II Second Dm Em Fm etc.
III Third Em Fm Gm etc.
IV Fourth F G A etc.
V Fifth G A B etc.
VI Sixth Am Bm Cm etc.
VII Seventh Bm7dim Cm7dim Dm7dim etc.

          On a diatonic instrument like a folk harp, unless we flip levers, the I, IV, and V chords will be major, the II, III, and VI will be minor (IIm, IIIm, VIm), and the VII will be a minor 7th diminished. (Don’t worry about what a minor 7th diminished is. That's beyond the scope of this article.) No matter what key you are in, this will be the pattern. In the key of C, in order to play a D major chord, you need to sharp your F. To play an E major, which is sometimes desired in A minor, you need to sharp your G.

          When you go into a new key, the new Tonic is still a major, the new II is still a minor, and so forth. If you are in the key of G, your second II (Am) becomes a major chord by sharping the C, and the VI (Bm) becomes a major by sharping the D.

          What would you change in the key of D to make a major II? A major VI? In the key of A?

          By designating the chords numerically instead of by name, one can write their number on a lyric sheet and know that one needs a II over this word and a VI over this, regardless of the key the song is played in. It takes practice to get used to encoding and decoding numerical chording on the fly however.

          Look at Appendix 1, the circle of fifths and the circle of intervals. Notice that if you were to copy and cut them out, you would be able to turn the smaller circle and match the keys up anywhere along the intervals. By setting your sharping levers to any key your harp is set up to play in, and setting the I aligned with the name of that key at the top of the circle of fifths you have an easy reference to all the intervals in that key. The tuning of the harp automatically puts the II and III in a minor, IV and V in major, etc.

          Set your sharping levers to each different key your harp is set up to allow. See the Circle of Fifths for reference. Practice going from chord to chord, thinking the chord names, until they are in your mind as firmly as C-Am-F-G.

          Now try Old MacDonald in the key of G.

          You will note that the chord changes are in the same places. Look at the Circle of Fifths in Appendix I. Note that the relationship of the F to the C, the C to the G, and so on, are the same. This will be true in every song you transpose, no matter whether the chords are major, minor, seventh, diminished, or pink-and-purple-polka-dotted.

Common Chord Progressions

          I -- IV -- I -- "Old MacDonald had a farm"
          I -- V -- I -- "Ee-I-Ee-I-O."
          IV -- V -- I "On the feast of Stephen" (in "Good King Wenceslas")
          I -- VI -- IV -- V -- "Heart and soul, I fell in love with you."
          VIm -- V -- IV -- III (or IIIm*) "Alas, my love, you do me wrong."
          VIm -- IIIm -- (or III) -- VIm "We Three Kings of Orient Are."
          II -- I -- II -- "Are you going to Scarborough Fair."

(* - If your mind hears a major chord but your harp doesn't have the right sharping lever, or you don't have time to sharp the lever that is there, play the chord "open" -- just the first and the fifth without the third. For instance an E chord would be E and B without the G or G#.)

          These are just a few examples. The more you experiment, practice, and become familiar with common patterns, the more easily you will recognize them and plug them into pieces they come up in. You won't have to memorize anything beyond, "Oh, that's the Greensleeves progression," or "that's the Scarborough Fair pattern."


          The ease of using chord theory has revolutionized my ability to memorize music. I hope it will yours.

          To use the circle of fifths while you play harp, assemble the two circles with a brad in the center. If you wish, take the circles to a school supply store and have them laminated for durability before bradding them together. There is no substitute for practice -- the circles are only for assistance while you become familiar with the patterns. Practice until you know the patterns in your sleep, and you will be set to hit them in any key without thinking about it -- a big improvement on memorizing note by note.

          So divide your practice time into theory and repertoire, and dive into the fundamentals. You'll not only strengthen your technique, you'll more than earn your time back in what you will save in ease of memorization!


Appendix 1 is a double wheel consisting of the Circle of Fifths in the smaller disk and the intervals of the octave in the larger. You can click on the image to download the file. To use the set, photocopy the page. Cut out the circles. If you wish, laminate them. Punch a hole in the center of them. Insert a brad into the holes with the small circle on top so you can see the interval wheel around the Circle of Fifths wheel. Position the interval wheel so that the I slice is even with whatever key you wish to play in, and the rest of the notes will be marked by the correct interval for that key.

Appendix 2 is a page of blank music for you to photocopy and use as you wish or you can click the image to download the file. You may print out as many copies as you wish. The margins will work for comb binding or using in a three ring binder. I comb bind mine in double-sided, hundred-page lots and use them as composition notebooks. If you check the price of music manuscript notebooks, you will see why!

Appendix 1 - Chromatic Circle of Fifths.

Appendix 2 - Blank Sheet Music.

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